Religious liberty, Christian apologetics, evangelism, suffering, and prayer are all topics weaved into the film God’s Not Dead, which finished fourth at the box office, earning an estimated $9.2 million despite opening on only 780 screens (compared to 3,200 screens for Divergent, the weekend’s top film). Although the film is burdened by some melodramatic scenes and a couple of harsh caricatures, it has plenty of redeemable qualities that warrant its viewing.
The acting in the film is a considerable step up from Facing the Giants and other recent films targeting a Christian audience. Even a movie reviewer at the Huffington-Post blog writes that, while God’s Not Dead is a movie for Christians that will not appeal to everyone, “the dramatic context of the script and the talent of the cast could make it entertaining for anyone.”
Josh Wheaton, a college freshman, enters his intro to philosophy class having heard about Professor Radisson’s hostility to Christians. At the outset, Professor Radisson asks all of his students to write, “God is dead,” on a piece of paper, sign it, and turn it in, so that the class won’t have to waste any time on debating the existence of a supreme being. Out of 80 students, only one — Josh — refuses to sign.
Rather reluctantly, Radison replies, “All right, Mr. Wheaton. Allow me to explain the alternative: If you cannot bring yourself to admit that God is dead for the purpose of this class, then you will need to defend the antithesis: that God is not dead. And you’ll need to do it in front of this class, from the podium. And if you fail — as you shall — you will fail this section and lose 30 percent of your final grade right off the bat.”
After oscillating for a couple of days, Wheaton accepts Radisson’s challenge, fueled by Jesus’ remarks in Matthew 10:32-33: “Everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.” Having meditated on Luke 12:48 as well (“When someone has been given much, much will be required in return”), Josh decides to publicly defend his faith, even if that means committing “academic suicide” and losing his girlfriend, who doesn’t want him to antagonize Professor Radisson.
As the main storyline develops, viewers are introduced to various characters whose subplots intertwine with Wheaton’s interaction with Radisson. Pastor Dave — a prominent character in the film — is a disillusioned pastor who repeatedly regrets that he is not “in the trenches” as his missionary friend is. Dave laments that, while he is busy with administrative tasks, missionaries are in the field, seeing new people come to Christ on a daily basis. By the end of the film, though, Dave recognizes that he is, in fact, in the trenches, ministering to people’s needs and nourishing their souls.
Different characters who are pursuing a more vibrant faith view Dave as a dependable confidant. Dave counsels a young Muslim woman, Ayisha, who converts to Christianity despite pressure from her family to cling to Islam. As a result of her profession of faith, she is kicked out of her home. Dave also advises Mina, Professor Radisson’s girlfriend, who is a Christian and ultimately leaves the professor because of his philosophy, his hubris, and his mistreatment of her.
All of these stories intersect in the last moments of the film. During his last presentation in class, Wheaton confronts the professor, in front of his classmates, demanding to know why Professor Radisson hates God. After an emotional appeal and continued questioning, Radisson admits he hates God because God took his mother from him when he was young. Wheaton discovers that Radisson, who was raised a Christian and who is surprisingly familiar with scriptural texts, developed a grudge against God after his mother died of cancer — a grudge he never relinquished.
Not long afterward, Radisson is involved in a tragic accident, and, as he is taking in his last breaths, Pastor Dave, who earlier in the film regretted not being in the trenches, is thrust into a situation of utmost urgency, talking Radisson through his last moments and allowing Radisson to express belief in Christ before his death.
While the film hits on several salient and relevant topics, especially religious liberty (before the closing credits, 12 recent court cases concerning academic freedom are referenced), the film suffers from an overemphasis on the flaws of the antagonists.
The atheist professor and the Muslim father (who physically abuses his daughter after her conversion to Christianity) seem, at points, to lack depth. Christians are justifiably irritated when they are stereotyped in films — when they are made to seem unthoughtful, superficial, or backward. Nowhere in God’s Not Dead are the professor and the Muslim presented as backward, but they are sometimes portrayed as villains — enemies to be defeated rather than as conversation partners to be loved and nudged toward truth for their own well-being. The point of defending Christian truth is not simply to win an argument, but to introduce others to the light of Christ and to do so lovingly, gently, and patiently.
As the film progresses, however, the humanity of both characters begins to break through, as the audience is granted insight into Professor Radisson’s thought process, his suffering, and his reasons for trying so diligently to disprove God’s existence. Also, the conservative Muslim father who expels his daughter from his household sobs after slamming the door, showing that he is motivated not by malevolence, but by love, however misdirected that love may be.
While the film has some flaws, it is engaging, the apologetics are sound (the scenes in which Wheaton proposes arguments in favor of God’s existence are particularly strong), and the message is powerful. Young adults heading into college do not have to fear professors who don’t share their faith background and who relentlessly belittle their belief system. This film, which emphasizes the rationality of faith, should serve as motivation for any college student who is hesitant about sharing his or her faith.
As Christ said, we should not fear those who have power over our bodies — over our temporal existence, including our grades — but we should fear God, who governs the soul and judges all people for their deeds. If we are merciful to others, Christ will be merciful to us. If we acknowledge Christ on earth, Christ will acknowledge us in heaven. God’s Not Dead is a call to all Christian students to be bold in defense of their faith, the evidence for which is reasonable and persuasive.
If anyone you know is about to enter college, we encourage you to introduce them to Summit Ministries, where they will be given the tools necessary to maintain a strong faith at a secular university.
The Holy Spirit will empower anyone willing to speak boldly on Christ’s behalf (Mark 13:11).
“But when you are arrested and stand trial, don’t worry about what to say in your defense. Just say what God tells you to. Then it is not you who will be speaking but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13:11)
Some of the situations portrayed in God’s Not Dead seem a little extreme. For example, in a country in which 84 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds believe in God, how reasonable is it to assume that, in a class of 80 students, only one would refuse to sign a document declaring that God is dead? And how likely is it that a college freshman would give stunning, accurate, and altogether persuasive arguments for God’s existence that would subsequently lead to the salvation of everyone in the class — including the staunchly atheistic professor?
Unfortunately, it is a reality that Christians in academia are persecuted for their views. Just last week, Professor Mike Adams won a lawsuit against UNCW for refusing to promote him to full professor because of his conservative positions on social issues. A pro-family group at Stanford was denied funding for a conference on the importance of marriage.
Sure, it may be outlandish to depict a college freshman converting all of his classmates with his mastery of apologetics, but several times in scripture, Jesus reminds his disciples, “Humanly speaking [things might seem] impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God” (Mark 10:27).
Too many college students, either because of fear or lack of confidence, are hesitant to even acknowledge their faith in a hostile secular environment. But, as Jesus says in the Gospel according to Mark, the Holy Spirit will speak to and through anyone witnessing publicly to the truth of God.
It is amazing how effective you can be for the kingdom of God when you are willing to minister wherever God has you — even if that means defending God’s existence in the classroom, exemplifying God’s goodness in your workplace, or displaying God’s love to your family members. Even if you, like a college freshman facing his professor, feel totally inadequate for the task, God will empower you and enable you to impact lives for the kingdom of heaven.